‘I was overcome with happiness … after 25 years can’t bear to be separate … it is an enormous pleasure, being wanted: a wife. And our marriage so complete.’ This passage from Virginia Woolf’s diary for 1937 is one of many that may cause some vexation to those feminists who have in recent years simplistically turned her into a guru for their movement. Even as war approached, ‘we privately are so content. Bliss day after day. So happy cooking dinner, reading, playing bowls’. When faced by such peculiar displays of breastbeating as the article in which Phyllis Grosskurth, while ostensibly reviewing the final volume of letters, all but said that Mrs Woolf was driven to suicide by her husband, it is more important than ever to stress the feeling of happiness which pervades this remarkable diary which now can, with only a few gaps, be read in full.
Despite all the horror ‘that lies over the water in the brain of that ridiculous little man’ as he struts ‘chewing his little bristling moustache’, these were again productive years for Virginia Woolf; whether interrupted by the Anreps (clearly related to the Connollys of Put Out More Flags) or by falling bombs, it was never long before she took up her pen again. Towards the end she looks with dread upon their contingency plan for suicide in the garage should the invasion attempt succeed. ‘I’ve a wish for 10 years more, & to write my book wh. as usual darts into my brain.’ Five months later she can still say, ‘I want to look back on these war years as years of positive something or other’. This diary, perhaps more than any other record, brings to life England between the wars in a way that is, to use her phrase, all the more ‘sequacious and robust’ for being not mere documentary but a reflection of life as seen by an acute, receptive but never self-indulgent being. ‘I am not a politician: obviously. I can only rethink politics very slowly into my own tongue.’ Her considered prose forms an endlessly readable account of a real life whose qualities will long outlast the superficial revel actions of all those politicians’ transcribed babblings.
Perhaps closer to her were the perfidious politics that she believed to surround the reviewing of books. As the volume opens in 1936 ‘the death of Kipling has set all the old war horses of the press padding round their stalls’; towards its end Joyce, ‘about a fortnight younger than I am’, goes too, ‘and now all the gents are furbishing up opinions’. Many a jaundiced old hack, ready to pounce on her own latest work, is viewed with a terror besides which a visit from the stormtroopers would seem mild. None the less Q D Leavis’s Scrutiny piece about Three Guineas did not give ‘me an entire single thrill of horror’; as she cheerfully told Ethel Smyth, ‘Oh, I’ve had such a drubbing and a scourging from the Cambridge ladies … I’m a disgrace to my sex: and a caterpillar on the community. I thought I should raise their hackles – poor old strumpets’. Of all the people that impinged on her time, much the worst seems to have been Kingsley Martin who brought with him all the worries of the front half of the New Statesman: from ‘ravaged, unwholesome’ to ‘devouring’, his entry in the index (entertaining in its own right) is one of summarized loathing.
Every so often May Sarton, ‘not a type from which I now get much kick’ and politely deferred in the letters, pops up. An early specimen of American thesis-writer arrives; one can imagine the envy with which the later ones, who do not, alas, have the subject rejected by their teachers as being too modern, will read of Miss Nielsen’s enjoying tea in Tavistock Square – well worth later being described as ‘a daneish bee haunted American lit, prof., entirely distracted by Einstein, & his extra mundane influence upon fiction’. Throughout the volume she expresses astonishment at the size of the publishing company which has ‘sprung from that type on the drawing room table at Hogarth House 20 years ago’. She appears to have been glad to relinquish her share in it while being grateful that she could continue to write without having to worry about what some other publisher might think. The struggle with the realism of The Years, Three Guineas and Roger Fry over, she was happy in the later part of the volume to be away for much of the time from all the confusions of London – not that this was cowardice, for Sussex was perhaps even more vulnerable. In her last series of essays (she took up reviewing again after a mid-Thirties lull) she writes about figures of the past, delighting in the sense of character and language; these arc perhaps linked with the vision of England that she developed in her last, magnificent novel, Between the Acts. (These years found her, in common with many writers, turning to her own past and beginning some memoirs.) This was not, however, the serenity of the mystic: comedy leavens and makes credible the horror. She is given lunch in 1940 at John Lehmann’s, where she meets T C Worsley. ‘As we talked we hacked thick steak; Oh said John my woman has a dodge for getting rations. No wonder. Some Bloomsbury cabhorse; & for the first time in my lunching out, I had to exchange for a steak that I could cut – And that with difficulty.’
After the agonies of writing and compressing The Years it was with similar delight and relief that she fell upon the Abdication Crisis which is related at length with relish and accuracy. (She heard from Mary Hutchinson who heard from Lady Diana Cooper who heard from Jack Hutchinson that ‘Mrs S gives him, unlike all the other mistresses, physical relief: her time synchronises with him’.)
Much sport is had with people whose lives crossed hers more closely; many who would otherwise be little known surely owe their fame to her. Curiously, in this volume there have been more omissions than in the earlier ones. It certainly sets two Peers of the Realm in a startling light, if one consults the original manuscript, when Hugh Walpole sees them naked and one engaged ‘in the act with a boy’ at the Elephant and Castle Baths. Why their names should here be concealed is strange, for such behaviour is rather less reprehensible than that of John Hayward’s landlord who was sent to gaol for his habit of writing lascivious letters and posting them off, unsolicited, to the Head Girl at Roedean. While one friend has permitted himself to be described as a ‘large rather pretentious vivid bellied shark’, the long, perfectly harmless account of a visit from one of their neighbouring solicitors’ clerks has been suppressed. (The curious part played by those solicitors in the dispersal of the Woolf papers was told by Paul Levy in an extremely interesting Harpers & Queen article in 1979.)
One would not, though, wish that Mrs Bell should have to cope with a libel suit after her ten years’ exemplary work on these diaries. Some people have criticized the length of her footnotes; these, surely, are a model of their kind, the perfect balance to a sometimes fantastic or obscure text. Hitler’s movements in Europe might not be at everyone’s fingertips nowadays; certainly few people when reading that Barbara Bagenal’s husband is either a clergyman or Lecturer at the London School of Economics would know, as Mrs Bell does, that he was in fact a horticulturalist. She has set a high standard for Mitchell Leaska, whose edition of the early journal is eagerly awaited. One hopes that it will not be long before a systematic edition of the essays appears many good ones are uncollected. Meanwhile, Virginia Woolf stumbles over a phrase. ‘Well, let it. These pages only cost a fraction of a farthing, so that my exchequer isnt imperilled.’ Those wishing to read them might balk at having to pay seventy times as much, but it is worth risking bankruptcy to have one’s own copy of this extraordinary work. A few months before her death, the diaries salvaged from the ruins of Tavistock Square, Virginia Woolf returned to Sussex and ‘3the pleasure of the empty house- of the ship in wh. we’re the crew’. The fear of madness sent her from it. As much as anything, these volumes testify to the goodness of her husband, which cannot be refuted by any of the sneering academics and their perverse insinuations.